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Gestures in your speech work in much the same way as type size, underlining and bold print in books or magazines. They help your listeners to see what is important in your message.

Consider a few of the purposes gestures can achieve in your speech:

1. They can repeat. Repeating gestures have a literal meaning that directly corresponds with your words. When you hold up three fingers to talk about three points, your gestures are visually reiterating your verbal content.

2. They can contradict. Nodding your head in the affirmative while saying “No” creates a disagreement between your gestures and your words. Saying, “I think he’s exactly right,” while rolling your eyes shows that you don’t believe he’s right at all. This type of contradiction can be used for a humorous effect in your message. Be aware that any time there is a conflict between what you are saying verbally and what you are signaling nonverbally, the listener will tend to perceive the nonverbal message as your intended meaning.

3. They can substitute. If you say, “He caught a fish about this long,” as you hold your hands 12 inches apart, you are using gesture to take the place of words. While we often use gestures to substitute for words in conversation, problems arise when someone is listening to a sermon in an audio-only format, such as radio or Internet broadcast.

4. They can complement. A preferable alternative to using gestures to substitute for words, complementary gestures visually reinforce the verbal message. Using this technique, for instance, the preacher might say, “He caught a fish about a foot long,” while holding his hands 12 inches apart.

5. They can emphasize. A gesture can highlight the importance or the emotion of what you are saying. A preacher might hold up a clenched fist to indicate anger or passion. Or he might lift his hands in the air to indicate praise or joy. Emphatic gestures are perhaps the most common gestures used in conversation and public speaking. While they don’t have literal meaning, their emotional content is usually understood by the audience.

6. They can regulate. You can use gestures to manage and guide your communication to your listener. Palms extended toward the audience indicate that you are asking them to stop or withhold judgment about a statement that you have made. Hands turned upward can express frankness and good humor. A slight wave of the hand as you move from one section of your message to the next can indicate a transition of thought.

Guidelines for Effective Gestures

1. Eliminate unnecessary gestures. We offer this guideline first because it is by far the most important and helpful. Regularly watching yourself or asking a trusted listener about any monotonous or repetitious gesture you are using will help tremendously in improving your gestures. A passionate preacher may unknowingly begin to gesture emphatically with nearly every word or every syllable, stabbing the air repeatedly with his index finger, chopping his hand furiously or shaking his fist over and over again.

While any of these gestures can be appropriate if used sparingly, overdoing a gesture has a similar effect as putting every word in a printed piece in italics or shouting all the time when you’re speaking. Gestures become ineffective when they are overused.

2. Identify your nervous gestures. Some gestures are distracting because they are just plain weird. One preacher developed the odd custom of lifting up on his toes and clicking his heels after making an important point, as though he were Dorothy trying to get back to Kansas. A word of correction from his wife cured him of this habit quickly.

Every preacher has the tendency to develop nervous gestures from time to time. These can include gripping the pulpit with white knuckles, folding your arms like a judgmental Pharisee, tugging at your sleeves, buttoning and unbuttoning your coat, fiddling with your eyeglasses, putting your hands in your pockets, playing with your keys (something best left in your study!), scratching your nose continually or some other nervous mannerism. Even experienced speakers will find themselves slipping into bad habits without regular monitoring and feedback.

3. Do not choreograph your gestures. We are amazed that a number of preaching books advocate planning gestures ahead of time and rehearsing them when preparing to preach. We have seen a number of preachers and other speakers (usually beginners) who have used planned and choreographed gestures.

These gestures tend to look wooden and awkward, and often have an unintended comedic effect. John Broadus gave sound advice that still holds today: “Never make any gesture from calculation. It must be the spontaneous product of present feeling, or it is unnatural.” The best gestures arise almost unconsciously as you react to the content of your message.

4. Gesture from the shoulders, not the elbows. When speakers are self-conscious or uncomfortable, many of us have a tendency to stiffen and to hold our upper arms against our torso. With this posture, our gestures will tend to come from the elbows rather than the shoulders. This makes our gestures look too subdued and creates greater physical tension and anxiety. Simply remembering to move your upper arms and shoulders when you gesture can work wonders in making your gestures more free and expressive.

5. Match your gestures to the speaking situation and the message content. Just as you would speak more loudly in a large auditorium, you need broader and bigger gestures when you are speaking in a larger venue. When the setting is more intimate, smaller gestures are more appropriate. Likewise, the content of your sermon will help direct your gestures. If you are telling a humorous story, large, imitative gestures may be in order. When you are getting more personal in making application, simply emphasizing your words with slight hand and arm motion is effective.

It’s also important to be aware that your gestures almost always seem bigger to you than they do to your audience, especially when you are new to public speaking. York and Decker write: “If you are basically introverted and unaccustomed to using gestures, the slightest hand movement may feel like you are making windmills with your arms. If you watch yourself on video, however, you will see that your movement is not exaggerated at all.”

6. Time your gestures appropriately. Gestures work best when they come slightly before or in concert with the words they emphasize. Some preachers gesture too late. For example, one prominent preacher from the not-too-distant past almost always gestured after he spoke. He would say, “It was a wide, wide desert,” and then, half-a-second later, spread his arms wide.

This became a noticeable part of his preaching style that many others imitated. His overall skill at preaching was probably not enhanced by gesturing late. Instead, he overcame this faulty mannerism with his other considerable strengths. For the rest of us, the best method is to time our gestures with our words.

Beebe and Beebe provide a helpful conclusion to this topic: “Use gestures that work best for you. Don’t try to be someone that you are not … your gestures should fit your personality. We believe it is better to use no gestures than to counterfeit someone else’s gestures. Your nonverbal delivery should flow from your message.” 

Adapted from Engaging Exposition (B&H Publishing Group, 2011)

Thom Rainer is the president of LifeWay Christian Resources and the co-author of Transformational Church: Creating a New Scorecard for Congregations.
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Mitchell Leonard

commented on Jan 31, 2015

Wow Thom, I always read your articles because they give such great insight. Once again, you have taught us Newbys some valuable lessons. Thanks, Mitch

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